William Zeckendorf Jr., 1929-2014: Developer, philanthropist left mark on Santa Fe

William Zeckendorf Jr., a New York-born real estate developer who left his mark on Santa Fe through major hotel and residential projects as well as cultural and philanthropic activities, died Wednesday morning at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, a family spokesman said. He was 84.

The son of Manhattan property mogul William Zeckendorf Sr., whose projects included putting together the site for the United Nations building, he followed in his father’s footsteps by helping create landmark projects in New York City, Washington, D.C., and other cities.

“He was an incredible real estate visionary,” said Santa Fe lawyer Earl Potter, who worked with Zeckendorf on such projects as the Eldorado Hotel, which opened in 1986 as the city’s largest and most upscale hotel.

“He was able to see what the Eldorado would mean for the town,” said Potter, who became a close personal friend. “It was controversial at the time because of its size and height, but it really helped lay the foundation for the prosperity of this town in the ’80s and ’90s.”

Zeckendorf also spearheaded such local developments as the Hotel Santa Fe, Los Miradores residential condominiums at St. John’s College and the Sierra del Norte subdivision off Hyde Park Road.

Along with his wife, Nancy Zeckendorf, he was instrumental in establishing the Lensic Performing Arts Center, which transformed a 1930s-era movie theater into a venue used by a variety of professional performing arts and cultural organizations. She continues to chair the center’s board as a founding director.

Although he was born and raised in New York, his family has roots in Santa Fe dating to the mid-1800s, when members of an earlier generation were among German immigrants who became merchants in Santa Fe and Albuquerque before moving to Tucson, Ariz., in 1870.

Bill Zeckendorf Jr. was born Oct. 31, 1929, in New York City. He graduated from Lawrenceville, an elite college preparatory school in New Jersey, in 1948. He attended Arizona University for two years before serving in the U.S. Army in Korea for 18 months.

He joined his father’s company in 1953 and, according to a Time magazine article, was a bit of a playboy, carousing with singer Judy Garland and other celebrities at the opening of Manhattan’s Peppermint Lounge in 1961.

The elder Zeckendorf went bankrupt in 1965, but formed a comeback firm in which his son also worked.

The younger Zeckendorf’s developments include the Ronald Reagan Office Building in Washington, D.C. In New York City, projects include Worldwide Plaza, a full-block residential-office complex on Eighth Avenue, and the Zeckendorf Towers overlooking Union Square. He also developed hotels in New York and was responsible for construction of several hundred apartments in New York and other U.S. cities.

Like his father, he also suffered setbacks in his career. According to an article in The New York Observer, his Manhattan real-estate ventures ran into problems after the banking slump of the early 1990s. In March 2000, a front-page article in The Wall Street Journal reported an incident in which collection attorneys got a court order to break into the Zeckendorfs’ penthouse apartment at New York’s Delmonico Hotel to search for assets.

According to a history prepared by the Lensic, he had met his wife, Nancy, in Santa Fe in 1961 through his mother and stepfather, the music critic Irvin Kolodin, who was in Santa Fe to review operas. She had been a ballerina with the Metropolitan Opera for nine years and had come West to perform with The Santa Fe Opera. They were married in 1963, his second marriage. His first wife, the late Guri Lie Zeckendorf, was the daughter of the first U.N. secretary-general, Trygve Lie.

Bill and Nancy Zeckendorf visited Santa Fe frequently and he once told an interviewer that it was during an Indian Market weekend when they had difficulty finding a hotel room that he began thinking about the potential for a hotel like the Eldorado. For years they maintained homes in both New York and Santa Fe. Potter said they gradually spent more and more time in Santa Fe and during the last 15 years or so lived full-time in Santa Fe.

They both threw themselves into philanthropic efforts. In addition to their work on the Lensic, she served on The Santa Fe Opera board for 15 years, and he served on the boards of the local hospital and the College of Santa Fe, as well as the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival’s executive committee. They also were involved with Santa Fe Cares and the youth tennis program First Serve.

In 2011, they were named Santa Fe Living Treasures.

Among other activities, he was a longtime member of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Testavin, an international organization which, according to its website, is dedicated to promoting Burgundy, “notably its wines and cuisine, preserving and reviving its traditional festivals, folklore and customs, and encouraging the development of tourism in the region.” Potter said Zeckendorf was a wine collector with “an unbelievable wine cellar.”

Zeckendorf had broad social acquaintances, Potter said, and “was always introducing people to Santa Fe. He had a true love of the town and what it could be in its best aspects. He was very philanthropic, which was just as important to him as the business part.”

In addition to his wife, he is survived by two sons, William and Arthur Zeckendorf, who after college had joined their father in the real estate business and now have their own firm in New York City.

A statement issued in Santa Fe on behalf of the family Wednesday said a memorial service will be held in March, details of which will be announced soon.

Contact Howard Houghton at 986-3015 or hhoughton@sfnewmexican.com.

(4) comments

Peter Komis

I am very saddened to read about Bill Zeckendorf's passing. What a remarkable man. He and Nancy surely have made a tremendously positive impact here in Santa Fe.

Trevor Burrowes

Maybe it's a tribute to a developer to stop after his passing and consider the field of "development" for a while. Mr. Zeckendorf appeared to have focused on highly symbolic and cultural developments within the core city of Santa Fe. Whatever its challenges re maintaining the city's historic character, this is where development should go.

The issue is water. The issue is sprawl. Where I live in the Galisteo Basin, wells are dropping 10 feet per year. I understand that this is not due to local overuse, but instead to the spate of sprawl development within the county. At the same time there are proposals, such as that to use Santa Fe County recycled water to abate dust for 25 years of gravel mining of the La Bajada Mesa. To approve such a scheme would be more like suicide than development. Instead, the county should be seeking ways to keep development within the urban core while preventing more sprawl and more industrial schemes that misallocate our scarce water supply.

Fred Stokes

You live in the Galisteo Basin, but you are not part of the sprawl. I'm guessing you have a well, but somehow it does not contribute to the drop in the water table.

Of course.

Trevor Burrowes

I live in an old house, established in the 1920s, and my water comes from the community water company. I was told that it was not local use that is causing the community well to subside at 10 ft a year, but that it is the sprawl development, largely in the El Dorada area that's responsible.

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